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Marsh Lake aquatic ecosystem restoration project receives Corps of Engineers Chief’s approval

Published Jan. 25, 2012
Marsh Lake Dam

Marsh Lake Dam

Marsh Lake’s ecosystem restoration project located near Appleton, Minn., is shaping up to be one of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, or DNR, top projects in the state, said Dave Trauba, Marsh Lake area wildlife operations manager. 

The project is aimed at restoring a nationally significant ecological resource and includes a successful stakeholder partnership between the DNR and the district. 

Consisting of the upper portion of the Lac qui Parle Reservoir, Marsh Lake lies within the 33,000- acre Lac qui Parle Wildlife Management Area owned by the Corps and managed by the DNR. The large number and variety of aquatic and avian species present here make this area one of the Midwest’s most popular destinations for outdoor lovers, according to the DNR. The Audubon Society also considers this are to be an important bird area of national significance. 

The Corps’ Marsh Lake ecosystem restoration project addresses the continuous degradation of the lake since the construction of the Marsh Lake Dam in the 1930s. One significant reason for the aquatic and riparian ecosystem decline was the artificially maintained water levels created by the dam. This created stagnant, often dirty water within the lake. A goal of the project involves returning the lake to more naturally functioning aquatic ecosystem. 

The Marsh Lake restoration has been an ongoing project for the DNR since it was first mentioned in their books in 1988 and the Corps has been involved since 2007. Mike Wyatt, project management, said, for both agencies, the biggest obstacle in restoring the lake’s ecosystem is balancing the diverse recreational interests invested in the area. 

Trauba agreed. “Meeting everyone’s goal was more about bringing the ecosystem process back and letting everything else follow,” he said. “We need to work within the realm in which we can control.” This balance is one of the factors attributing to the success of this project. 

One way the balance between recreational interests is achieved, for example, is through installing a drawdown structure and maintaining seasonal drawdowns of the lake. This will allow approximately 90 percent of the lake to be drawn down or nearly 3,600 acres of the lake bed, according to the feasibility report. These drawdowns will address sediment accumulation, which is a large contributor to the ecosystem decline, by allowing vegetation to grow. These lower water levels will be put in place for winter, so as not to impact bird migration or the hunting season that occurs early in the fall. The drawdowns will also increase fish competition as a way to fight invasive carp and maintain diversity within the lake. The water levels will also be maintained at a specific level to protect Minnesota’s largest breeding colony of American white pelicans, which nest on Marsh Lake’s islands. 

Along with tapping into the recreational activities that already contribute to Marsh Lake being a popular outdoor destination, Wyatt said, “The project will provide a push to diversify recreation and improve it.” 

Trauba said, canoeing and kayaking would become easier with the rerouting of the Pomme de Terre River to its historic channel and features such as boat ramps, lake access points and interpretive signs will also be improved and expanded. Along with these improvements, new bike paths around the 5,000-acre lake and a bridge over the Marsh Lake Dam, are planned for the future.
Wyatt said, “The most significant success for the Corps lies in the Marsh Lake restoration cost effectiveness.” 

From an environmental standpoint, cost is measured per habitat unit. The average cost for a Corps project is around $2,000 per habitat unit. With the Marsh Lake project, the total cost is estimated to be around $10 million. The ecosystem restoration cost will be approximately $60 per habitat unit. This is a great cost effective project with significant positive impacts on Marsh Lake’s ecosystem and recreational opportunities, he said. 

The next major step for the Marsh Lake ecosystem restoration project is receiving congressional authorization and appropriations to begin construction.